I think we have established by now that I do love a good apocalypse. There is something irresistible, for me, in seeing how a society breaks down and, consequently, how it attempts to rebuild itself. Of course we have been schooled to see apocalypses (apocoli? this is an issue which has concerned greater minds than mine…) as something, well, explosive. We think of radioactive fall-out, incurable and exotic diseases, zombies but what if the world ended with more of a whimper than a bang? What if the end of days is slow, gradual and rather prosaic?
Lionel Shriver’s tale of how one family, the Mandibles, copes during such an event is fascinating. And it is mostly so because it is just so plausible being based on an economic system we can see at work today. High national levels of debt, a reliance on the transfer of money rather than the cash itself and an almost total disconnect from manufacturing or manual labour. And of course all the generations following on from the Baby Boomers who are relying on inheriting the fortune their parents have built up to cover their debts and losses. The Mandible fortune has been built up first by the manufacture of diesel engines, then in the generation of the current patriarch, Douglas, in publishing. Subsequent generations are journalists, writers, academics – the move away from the making of actual physical stuff is there. When the American economy goes into free fall – wiping out the fortune which the whole family was anticipating (yet trying not to – there is a feeling that wishing for the death of the grandfather is in poor taste and the Mandibles are, if nothing else, tasteful). It is a gripping arc to the story where we see the family, in a country which is rapidly falling apart, realising that things are going to go beyond having to give up luxuries like imported wine, meat or holidays. We even go beyond the point where essentials like a decently paid police force, basic medication like laxatives or even toilet paper are available. Don’t think that just because there are no zombies or wars this is not a very, very grim affair.
For me this book contains my apocalypse – the death of books. Not just of publishing or print books – bad as that would be – but of authorship itself. A generation raised to expect that, once they have paid for a device (like an e-reader or a smart phone), they can get unlimited content for free leads gradually to the end of paid writing. I have a number of writer friends who self-publish and who, occasionally, produce work which is low-cost or even free but they do need to make money from their work. Although this whole book was, frankly, terrifying at times I think I’m most afraid that this is the part which will come true first…